Welcome to the Bad Play Friday series!
Each week, I will share some quick thoughts on a late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century US play. 1 This series is really a way of keeping me honest as I work through my monograph on Civil War memories; because it is monograph-related, the play will somehow touch upon the war, slavery, or Reconstruction. I’ll be revisiting some plays I’ve already read/written about, but many will be texts I just recently acquired, thanks to a generous PSC-CUNY grant. The grant sent me to the Sherman Theatre archive, part of the Morris Library Special Collections at Southern Illinois University this past February. Robert Sherman was a theatre manager, who luckily held onto many scripts – included pirated copies, as far as I could tell. I have no clue how long this series will continue: probably until I am buried in grading or committee work towards the end of the fall semester. Perhaps it will go on for eternity – especially if I can convince some like-minded friends to contribute entries. But no guarantees. This post will be longer than others, because I’ve got some explaining to do.
So why bad plays? First off, when I say “bad play,” it might seem as if I am putting forth an opinion, an aesthetic judgement: these are plays that – as you read them – you might cringe inwardly. Sometimes it’s because of the politics, or because some of the portrayals rely on heteronormative, racist, sexist, or other stereo-/stage-types, that make me – as a reader today – shudder; but these plays are, shall we say, not exactly the enduring classics. Maybe the play is derivative, or the plot relies on (fairly predictable, to us) twists and turns, or the stage effects seem to be the only thing going for it, or heightened moments of pathos dominate the narrative, or the melodramatic elements are super-charged generally, or the dialogue induces groans. 2 By “bad plays,” I also mean that these plays have been largely neglected, except for in some rather specialized studies; they have been deemed not worthy of attention, or are usually skipped over in surveys, and almost certainly aren’t things you’d learn about for your comps if you were a grad student in theatre (because O’Neill is the only thing you need to know after Uncle Tom’s Cabin, amirite?).
But really, I’m troubling the idea of a “bad play,” and being kind of tongue-in-cheek about this (just want to be clear – I’ve found that my sarcasm does not always translate into written/digital spaces). Very often, these “bad plays” of the late-nineteenth/early-twentieth were quite popular, and thus can reveal quite a bit to us. That’s not to say that closet dramas (intended or not) or pieces performed to limited audiences can’t reveal things about the context or reception of these pieces, or the work’s relation to other artistic movements, or future developments in performance or dramatic arts, but…well, I think popular plays reveal a hell of a lot more (and I’m sure this assertion reveals that I am coming at this as someone heavily influenced by Marxist/Sociology of Culture approach). Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to conflate my use of “bad plays” here with “popular” plays across the board – it just so happens to be the case with the plays and period I’m discussing. So when reading these bad popular plays, I cringe – and then I clap my hands with scholarly glee when things get really ridiculous. Because “bad plays” of the nineteenth/early-twentieth century often get me way more excited (even with all the cringing) than the “canonical” ones that come later. 3
First up in the series: A.R. Calhoun’s The Color Guard (1870). Calhoun was a colonel in the Union army during the war, and commander of the Pennsylvania branch of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) in the early 1870s. This play is one of hundreds of plays that are referred to as “GAR plays:” they were plays written by/for the Union veterans’ organization, often staged by amateurs as part of a charity event to raise funds for a particular GAR post, or widows and orphans of the war (as was more often the case). Should you wish to read this masterpiece in full, it is now available online (it was not when I started my research, so aren’t y’all lucky now?). There was a robust printing business around GAR plays (many of which were illegal copies), and some professional playwrights/actors would tour the country with several of these plays in their repertoire, knowing that they could stroll into town and work with the local GAR post to stage one of these and earn some cash.
The reason I chose this GAR play is that we know Ulysses S. Grant saw a production of it, staged in his honor in 1879 in San Francisco at the California Theatre. While the play was most often produced by Union veterans (with perhaps one or two roles played by professionals), the performance Grant attended was almost entirely professional, with the militia stepping in only to perform drills.
Here’s what unfolds. I will spend a fair amount of time on the plot, just because this is not exactly a familiar genre to many folks. If you read enough of these (and I have read a lot of them), you would understand what Rosemary Cullen means when she says that these plays are “virtually indistinguishable retellings” of the war (though I would argue that there are shades of difference to be found, and ones that are revealing overall), and how Jeffrey Mason could call them “formulaic” plays written by “professional or semiprofessional hacks.” 4 If you’re not interested in the particulars, or you know a long-ass plot summary will bore you to tears, you can just skip on down to the so, what? part.
The play begins – as many GAR plays do – in an idyllic Northern village scene, soon to be troubled with news of the outbreak of war. In this case, it is set in Ohio, so there is a bit more contention around loyalties. Also – as in most of these GAR plays – families are torn apart when they enlist, on multiple levels: families that were once besties align with opposing sides, within families there are divisions, and the little ladies are left behind to tend to the homefront with patriotic fervor. Flags made by the aforementioned little ladies are often presented to the recruits and then waved around a lot as the lads march out of town – giving the veterans a chance to show their marching and drilling chops. At some point in here, characters are introduced as comic relief elements, often ethnic: stage Yankees, German, Irish, slaves (played in black-face), or (less often) free black characters appear in the GAR plays, though with different frequencies and configurations.
And then, almost certainly, either within the scenes first taking place in the village or shortly thereafter, a villainous Confederate must make himself plain.
In this case it is Alfred Thornton. Alfred’s loyalties are up for grabs: he shows up at Lucy Johnson’s house, and tells her that though he is a “Southern man in feeling…a yes from your lips would lead me to fight in any cause. The faintest hope of your love would make me respond to-morrow to Lincoln’s call.” 5 Lucy does not take kindly to this declaration:
No, sir, I despise you. Your words confirm my worst fears of your utter want of principle. I can respect the Southern people who act honestly out of their errors; but a man whose sword hangs upon a woman’s word, when great principles are at stake, should not be trusted even by his friends. 6
[Feminists, insert groan here.]
Lucy rejects Alfred for her sweetie, Louis Ludlow – who has, it turns out, saved Alfred’s life at some point in the past. Alfred goes a bit ape-shit at this point:
Then the die is cast; and while blood flows through this strong right arm, it will hold a sword against those you love; and while my heart beats, its every throb will be hatred and death to Louis Ludlow. 7
Moving on to the presentation of the flag scene, Lucy addresses the convened villagers:
My friends, the flag which I hold in my hand is the emblem of our whole nation. Its glorious field of blue represents not only our own beloved Ohio, but every State in the North now arming for the defence, and every State in the South arrayed against us in rebellion…You will return it in safety, and I pray God that with it may come the brave color guard to whom I intrust it. In the dark hours of battle look up to the God of Justice, look around on the land of our fathers, and remember the sisters who bow for you in prayer. 8
As is also common in many GAR plays, slavery is not cited as the paramount cause for the war: if it is, it is subsidiary to the ultimate cause, the preservation of the Union. 9 The South – even as the cause of rebellion – is still part of the flag and the nation, and must be brought back into the fold in the world of these plays.
And now, we can get to what Grant saw. Because he rolled up fashionably late.
There was a large crowd gathered outside to cheer for Grant, and the noise carried over into the theatre. The performance stopped so that he could receive a standing ovation. 10 The production picked up where it left off: Act II, set in tavern in the Tennessee mountains. Several Southerners with divided loyalties sit drinking, and a stage German and Irish character sit imbibing with the company. Alfred Thornton joins them and attempts to recruit the drinkers to the Confederate side. He rants that the Union flag is the “emblem of abolition and oppression,” claiming he was almost lynched for his Southern loyalties (a patent lie, spectators present for the first act would agree). 11 The stage ethnic Others display a distinct lack of patriotism for either side. Tom Flynn says that his German “frien’” should “give yersel’ no thrubble about goin’ wid the Union or the Sthate; but give me the dollar an’ fifty cints ye promised, an’ go wid me an’ I’ll dhrink yer health in a bumper.” Peter Hygley, the German character, initially declares he “swears mit de Union,” but the next time he appears he is bungling countersign operations as a Confederate guard.
In the most spectacle-driven scene that Grant would have witnessed, a group of pro-Union Southern refugees swear upon the Union colors while under fire by rebel troops:
I pledge…to lay down my life to defend this flag, which I sweare [sic] to protect, as the emblem of the whole Union; and I promise before Heaven always to stand by my brothers. 12
These “brothers,” coincidentally, are all white, Southern refugees – there are no minorities or ethnic characters in their midst. Grant only remained until the tail end of the third act, but the famed savior of the Union was present to see the celebration of white native-born fraternity.
Bob Mason, a pro-Union Southerner – is one of the men in the tavern. Working as a scout for the North, he comes upon a Rebel squad in the woods, killing several of them before he is captured. He declares his loyalty to the Union when prompted to share his last words, and is prepared to face execution as a spy at the hands of the Confederates:
I ain’t much at speakin.’ Wimen, that live a long time, an’ cowards have heaps of gab. I’ve done nothin’ to bring a blush to my cheeks since I was born. I’ve fought for the Union, an’ my only sorrow at dyin’ is that I can’t live to help her more. I once had a hut in the mountain, an’ a wife an’ children. I loved my little home an’ my wife an’ babies, but you’uns hunted me down like a stage, from hill to hill, till I left the State. An’ then, like cowards, in the cold winter you’uns burned my hut to the groun’, an’ my wife and little ones starved in the mountain. My heart has long carried a fire lit by the men who ruined me an’ mine. I’ve paid you. I’m willin’ to be at rest, an’ meet them up thar. 13
Louis shows up with reinforcements just in time to save the soon-to-be-hanged Bob, only to discover that Bob has killed Louis’s brother: the “poor, brave, misguided Tom,” now “dead, dead, dead” (yes, this repetition actually occurs in the text), who fought for the Confederacy. 14 Louis quickly forgives Bob, telling the Southerner he was just doing his duty
As the play progresses, Alfred does seem close to achieving his revenge: Louis is injured on the battlefield and collapses with a head wound, and even though the Union is winning, Alfred manages to take Louis prisoner. Act IV sees Louis planning on tunneling out of Libby Prison. Bob Mason is disguised as a black janitor (!!!) and has been hanging around Libby to help Louis, and they both watch a sick prisoner shot and killed by guards. This kind of prison scene displaying Confederate cruelty towards prisoners appears often in other GAR dramas as well.
Meanwhile, Lucy has made her way down South to look for Louis. She is captured by Alfred as she walks among the Union fallen. Alfred still makes a play for Lucy: he claims he tried to save Louis, but that he’s already dead; next Alfred attempts to blackmail Lucy, saying his visits to her make her “honor” look compromised; he then admits Louis is alive, but that he’ll be killed in Libby if Lucy doesn’t accept Alfred’s offer ASAP.
Toney, Thornton’s “colo’d boy,” has heard it all, and says Thornton is a bad man. Toney has slept under Lucy’s wagon the entire time she’s been held captive. He assures her that his intentions – unlike Alfred’s – are good:
Miss I’se only a poor colo’d boy, an’ I dont know much, but I does know dat up dar der’s a God, who’ll judge me bi’ne bye, an’ I does know dat my heart is good. Eber since Lincum’s ‘clamation, I’se wanted to clar out an’ go whar dar’s liberty fur all men ob ebery colo’. 15
He also declares that he has seen how Lucy cares for the wounded, and thus knows she is good as well – and this has inspired his oath to protect her. Toney offers his aid – and that of other African Americans they might encounter – along with a loaded pistol to get her over to the Union line. He also tells her that if he proves dishonest, she should feel free to shoot him. They escape (also not without drama, as they get a bit lost and Lucy gives Toney a ring to return to her father and then to Louis, thinking she is near capture and/or death). Lucy reunites with Louis (and Bob) as they bust out of Libby. Alfred gets shot chasing Louis and Bob, cursing them all as he dies – even as Louis tries to help him one last time. The Union squad begin the march on Savannah (giving them an opportunity to sing the famous war-song “Marching Through Georgia”), then to DC for the final review.
Along the way, there’s another opportunity for some comic relief in the form of the Stage Dutch character (Peter Hygley), the Irish character who has aligned himself with the Confederacy (Tom Flynn), and Washington, a black servant to a Union colonel. When Peter calls Washington “contraband,” Washington counters and says he “was an’ honest colored genelmem, I’se none of your cornfield darkies, I was born norf, I was.” Peter doesn’t believe him, saying “you must dink I was blind, don’t you dink I see off your face, you was black mans.” 16 Tom Flynn is tricked by Peter offering him some liquor, and is taken prisoner.
After some more obligatory scenes, they all return to Ohio. Tom Flynn signs “the pledge” and hopes that other Rebels like him will “not get kicking up a fuss they ain’t able to get through wid.” Louis echoes his hopes, and wishes “for peace and prosperity henceforth, in the free South and our united land. But should danger again threaten the flag, it will not want for a color guard to defend it.” 17
So, what? Grant wouldn’t have witnessed all of this; like I said above, he peaced out by the start of Act IV. Still, a lot of this would have been familiar to Grant, or an audience member of the period: there’s the love interest, the blocks preventing them from achieving the romantic union common to this brand of melodrama, the pathos, the insertion of popular songs, and the comic stage “types” mentioned above (the stage Yankee, “Dutch,” Irish, and blackface minstrel characters – with the unusual addition of a white character adopting blackface in a meta-way in the figure of Bob Mason). The plot – as those of you who braved the semi-detailed summary can attest to – is a hot mess: but it also contains a lot of echoes and shared scenes from other, earlier GAR plays.
More importantly, the ways that gender, race, ethnicity, and – in turn- citizenship are constructed are revealing, in The Color Guard and in other GAR plays. The post-war decades saw seismic changes throughout the states: mourning and economic recovery from the war, shifts (and then veritable explosions) in immigration, attempts to include and then exclude particular populations (both the aforementioned immigrants and the many African Americans freed by the war), and what Alan Trachtenberg calls the “incorporation of America.” This incorporation wasn’t just about the “expansion of an industrialized capitalist system,” but also meant that the Gilded Age saw an “emergence of a changed, more tightly structured society with new hierarchies of control.” 18
The GAR was part of this contest for control, both as a semi-political organization interested in procuring veterans’ pensions, but also as keepers of the Union cause in war memory. As Barbara Gannon has recently noted, the GAR was – in many ways – progressive in its approach towards racial integration, while maintaining that the “failed Confederate national experience” and “greatest transgression” was “treason.” 19 The GAR was integrated when no other organization of its size and stature was, but this is not to say that this integration was consistent in practice and application: posts could decide whether or not to integrate (some elected not to), and there was certainly a fair amount of exclusion and segregation on the post-level. Even with this more progressive approach towards including African Americans – moreso than the general white public, certainly – The Color Guard‘s plot and treatment of Others reveals some of the tensions and preconceived notions about immigrants and blacks that were popularized in much-older stage types.
Certainly when drawing on dramatic conventions, the possibilities for radical displays of inclusion and equality were rather limited – and this bears out in the play. While Toney engineers his escape to the North to be free, he is still willing to sacrifice it all for a white woman – and it is only when he is serving as her protector that he dares to make his move. Toney also does not hold the loaded gun himself; instead, he bestows it upon a white woman, and urges her to use it against him at will. Washington is only seen as a servant, and his assertions that he is a free man are interrogated by the Stage Dutch character: Washington’s black coloring (actually blackface, of course), according to the “Dutchy,” is more indicative of his status than anything else. Skin color – or the appearance of black skin in performance – trumps all. And then we have a white character who adopts blackface to help another Union soldier break out of Libby: a stage convention explicitly employed on a stage, when white men in blackface drew on minstrel tropes in other scenes.
I’m not even getting to the other tensions here, in terms of construction of gender, or citizenship more broadly, or a host of other things. That President Grant bore witness to what was – by then – a “formulaic” rendering of the war written by/for veterans to perform, with murky racial politics, is indicative of the larger struggles within the GAR to integrate and – in some ways – the organization’s inability to foreground slavery. This, in turn, reflected on and contributed to the ongoing political struggles of African Americans to establish juridical rights in the aftermath of the war. It also hints at the eventual dominance Lost Cause narrative that would privilege white memories and even more thoroughly eliminate slavery from the war’s narrative. The GAR’s labeling of Confederate “treason” would morph into a romantic, heroic endeavor via the Lost Cause rendering of things.
Anyways, this is just a one play of many GAR texts I’m revisiting currently as I write, and that I’ve talked about a bit here as well. Thanks to all who read, and thanks for any comments you might have. If any of you lovely people have a “bad play” in mind that you are just itching to write about, give me a holler.
- My commentary will most likely be rife with sarcasm because it’s my second language, although my doctoral program would not accept it as one of the language requirements. ↩
- Though I don’t care what any of you say, some of the BEST. LINES. IN. DRAMATIC. HISTORY. EVER. can be found in John Brougham’s Po-ca-hon-tas (1855), as John Smith is about to get his head chopped off:
POCAHONTAS: Husband! for thee I scream!
SMITH: Lemon or Vanilla? [emphasis in original]
- Of course, that doesn’t mean that these plays might not be one day canonical, or that the canon is static, or that it isn’t constructed by various political and social forces, or that it isn’t biased, or that there aren’t sub-canons or alternate canons: one could say that William Gillette – in the context of a US theatre history class – is canonical for that field, but is not considered to be on equal footing with twentieth-century playwrights in a more generalist approach to theatre overall. But I’m preaching to the choir here I imagine, so enough on the trouble with canons. ↩
- Rosemary L. Cullen, The Civil War in American Drama Before 1900: Catalog of an Exhibition (Providence: Brown University Library, 1982), 28; Jeffrey Mason, Melodrama and the Myth of America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 162-3. ↩
- A.R. Calhoun, The Color Guard (Providence, RI: Millard, Gray, and Simpson, Steam Printers, 1872), 9-10. ↩
- Ibid., 10 ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid., 13. ↩
- See Gary Gallagher’s The Union War (Harvard UP, 2012) for a lot more on this Union cause. ↩
- Something audiences still do today of course – but when the most famous person in the production steps on stage. And it annoys the hell out of me, should you be keeping track of things that annoy the hell out of me. ↩
- Calhoun, Color Guard, 16. ↩
- Ibid., 21. ↩
- Ibid., 25. ↩
- Ibid., 26. ↩
- Ibid., 32. ↩
- Ibid., 38. ↩
- Ibid., 46. ↩
- Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age (2007; rpt. New York: Hill & Wang, 1982), 3-4. ↩
- Barbara Gannon, The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2011), 186. ↩